OTTUMWA — Open enrollment is an issue the Ottumwa school district has been trying to solve for years. Now, it will have a third party working toward a solution.
“This is my third year, and we have continuously worked to gain insight, and previous efforts have failed,” said Marci Dunlap, the district’s secondary education director. “In its most simplest terms, I think everyone in here would agree that open enrollment negatively impacts stakeholders’ perceptions of the district.
“Sometimes, it impacts more than just perceptions,” she told the school board this week. “Sometimes, it’s bottom line.”
The numbers backed that up. In 2009, open enrollment net for the district, factoring those in and out, was a negative 25.4. Over the past 10 years, that number has increased to a negative 475 in 2019. That 475 figure, multiplied by the $6,880 per-pupil funding from the state, means $3.3 million lost annually “from families and students that choose to attend school elsewhere,” Dunlap said.
“We want to emphasize that that’s not just a one-time number loss. That’s every year,” she said.
Totaling up the number of students lost over the 10-year period (2,429) has meant a $15.9 million loss when multiplied by a $6,558 five-year per-pupil average.
“Previous district actions to impact open enrollment have fallen short. Past strategies to gather information to answer ‘why’ have yielded polite and similarly themed responses,” read a slide in Dunlap’s presentation.
“The thing we haven’t done is really gained a solid insight into how we need to act to improve or increase our open enrollment numbers,” Dunlap said.
“What we don’t know are the reasons or the trigger points about why families are open-enrolling out,” said Kim Hellige, director of community programs. “We want to know the why so we can better develop strategies that will help us reverse the trend.”
That’s where a collaboration with Essman and Associates and Flynn Wright “to gain insight into the motivation for present and past families to leave the Ottumwa Community School District,” the proposal reads. That research will evolve into recommendations based on parent feedback.
The organizations have been working in Ottumwa on behalf of the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation for the past 18 months. Superintendent Mike McGrory said they’ve gotten rave reviews from ORLF as well as the city in addition to in-depth knowledge of the community from that work.
“The work they’ve done in the past can assist us in providing additional data that can be used when they start analyzing the results of the proposed activities,” Hellige said.
That work is broken down into four steps.
Step one involves in-depth phone interviews with up to 26 families who have opted to enroll elsewhere, with 10-12 of them coming at the pre-k level and six to seven each prior to fifth and ninth grades. “The reason we selected those points is because what we’ve seen looking at the data is that we have a large number of students who are leaving the district at those points in time,” Hellige said
She said the interviews are intended to find specific motivations and trigger points for leaving as well as gauging satisfaction with their new district.
Board member Jeff Bittner questioned the number, saying 26 seemed really low statistically. McGrory said he shared that concern as well, but that the firm will make additional phone calls in order to find the “right” 26 families. “They may end up calling 100 people before they find the right 26 that they really think can provide us the insights we’re really looking for,” he said.
And, Hellige said, if they don’t find recurrent themes, they could expand the number of interviews, though cost would be reflective of that number.
The second step involves an online survey for current families and staff that the district will email a link to with the goal of prioritizing needs, drive strategic planning, identifying district loyalty, perceptions of the district and opportunities to enhance experiences.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this is because we not only want to figure out and understand the triggers why families are leaving the Ottumwa Community School District but also to understand how significant those same triggers are to our current families,” Hellige said.
“One of the things we talked about is that we could get feedback themes from parents that have decided to have their students go to another district and we may find out from our parents that they don’t feel like those are concerns,” McGrory said.
Board member Christina Schark said this is the point that she most liked of the plan. “Five [students] left this meeting, but 4,700 didn’t. What caught my eye about this is not so much chasing the families that already left and made the decision to leave but also re-recruiting our families that stay.”
In between steps two and three, the district will receive feedback from the first two steps. “Through this, they will provide themes that they’ve identified through the process and also solutions,” Hellige said. They will present recommendations and strategies as well as detailed analysis and insight from the research team. “Those solutions will help us as we move into step three,” she said.
That step begins the strategic planning process, which would be developing solutions to increase retention in the district and “generally and improved experience.”
“This phase is intended to develop potential ideas and plans that would then be presented to current families in the district through virtual focus groups during the fourth phase,” Hellige said.
The proposal includes three 60- to- 90-minute focus group sessions with six to eight participants each. “We’re going to take those developed solutions for increasing student retention and we’re going to present those to focus groups,” Hellige said. “We’re going to sit down with those people and talk about what we are thinking about doing and asking them what the think and getting their impressions.” That, in turn, will result in a list of strategies to implement.
Hellige said the timeline includes three weeks for the phone interviews with the online surveys being completed by the end of November. The strategic planning process would be done in December with focus groups being held in early January. The cost of the proposal is just over $35,000.
Board President David Weilbrenner said that amounts to five students. “If we can figure out what’s going on and we can save five kids in the district, it’s paid for. I think we can do better than five.”
He commented that open enrollment has been an issue for years and “I don’t think we’ve done a great job of finding the real reason or we didn’t really want to embrace that reason.”
“We’ve looked at this and tried different strategies to address it, but we never really had somebody come in, do the research and give us the specific why,” Hellige said. “I think this is an opportunity for the district to get some really solid feedback from an outside firm to help us with the why so we can make some better decisions about what to do to work on that retention.”
The board voted 6-1 to approve the proposal with member Nancy Manson dissenting.
“My only concern is that right now people are extremely concerned with COVID, student achievement, getting their kids back to school and getting caught up on learning,” she said. “I agree that open enrollment is a significant problem. I agree that it costs us a lot of money. I just don’t know that right now is the time we want to be spending $35,000 or above to handle an open enrollment problem … I’m not confident this company will be able to bring in a significant number of students back so that it’s worth the amount.”
In other business, the board:
• Approved unanimously to continue in the Instructional Support Program including funding from the state income tax surtax with a public hearing set for Oct. 26.
• McGrory announced that the district has received approval from the Iowa Department of Education to operate an online virtual school, making it one of nine districts in the state with the designation.
• Board Vice President Jeremy Weller gave an update on the new facilities committee, which also includes McGrory, CFO John Berg, facility grounds directory Chuck Bray and board members Morgan Brown and Brian Jones. They will meet monthly and begin touring the buildings in an effort to better understand the analysis from Estes Construction. All board member will also be invited to tour the buildings.
• The first recognitions were made in the new employee recognition program, which will be done monthly based on community, student and staff nominations. Those recognized were Holly Baird, special education teacher at Evans; Tyler Courtney, technology director; Lauren Herrick, ELL teacher at Wilson; Jenna Hoskins, Douma school secretary; Melissa Jackson, Evans kitchen manager; Chelsey Rosenthal, Pickwick preschool teacher; Becky Stout, OHS kitchen manager; and Henry Weberpal, OHS orchestra teacher.